The three distinct projects Westbrook Housing has in the works illustrate how the organization has expanded its scope during the past 40 years – an anniversary the housing authority is celebrating this week.

There’s the plan to raze a dilapidated building on Main Street and replace it with condominiums and accompanying retail space for struggling artists and entrepreneurs. Just beyond the city line in Portland, construction is finishing up on the St. Patrick’s School Condominiums, which were renovated by Westbrook Housing’s affiliate, Westbrook Development Corp. At the same time, the housing authority is seeking funding for a 34-unit senior complex in downtown Westbrook.

“We try to keep a mix of things,” said John Gallagher, executive director of Westbrook Housing.

In recent years, Westbrook Housing has tried to meet the needs not just of the elderly and disabled, as it had in the past, but also of young first-time homeowners in need of assistance. Moving into the next decade, the organization’s top administrators say they hope to continue identifying and accommodating people in need of help finding homes while maintaining the philosophy they’ve had from the very beginning.

The Housing Authority of the City of Westbrook was founded in 1969, with the task of establishing general assistance housing units for the families and seniors in the city. The first project completed was 60 units of elderly housing on Knight Street, today known as Riverview Terrace, which was followed by the 40-unit Pine Knoll Terrace on Juniper Lane designated for families.

When the city set more affordable housing goals for families in the 1970s, the housing authority requested 25 Section 8 certificates to subsidize rent for low-income families and, at the same time, help landlords fill their units. Today, Westbrook Housing’s Section 8 department administers 655 such vouchers, 100 of which are designated for the disabled.

In 1987, the housing authority established the Westbrook Development Corp., which carries the same mission as the housing authority without being tied to federal funding sources. Together, the two organizations have developed six housing complexes with 400 apartments for seniors and disabled people, as well as nearly 50 other affordable apartments in Westbrook and more than 70 condominiums – not to mention the three projects presently being developed or the others that could be coming soon.

“There’s always stuff we’re thinking about,” Gallagher said.

Because of the changing role of Westbrook Housing, Gallagher, who has been executive director for the past 10 years, decided a few years ago to drop “authority” from the organization’s name. He said the word didn’t fit with the “softer, gentler” image he wanted to portray.

But that’s an attitude Deputy Director Susan Eldridge said has been there from the start.

“We’ve always been an agency that went beyond bricks and mortar. “We’ve always cared about the people behind the door,” said Eldridge, who was hired as the housing authority’s fourth employee in 1977.

Now with nearly 40 employees and seven different departments, Eldridge said the housing authority continues to be known for its dedicated staff.

Still, changes in the culture and economy of both the city and the country have forced Westbrook Housing to mold its services. Eldridge said Westbrook’s increasing diversity has required the organization to hire interpreters to overcome language barriers. An influx of large families into Westbrook, she said, has created somewhat of a shift from the authority’s original focus.

Another positive change Westbrook Housing has made, Eldridge said, has been becoming more involved with the community. Its close partnership with the city has made many people think that the two are intertwined.

“I’m extremely pleased and grateful for all their work,” said Mayor Bruce Chuluda, who said the city “couldn’t ask for a better partner” than Westbrook Housing.

According to Economic and Community Development Director Keith P. Luke, Gallagher is seen as a visionary in Greater Portland and has “kept Westbrook on the front of proactive development.”

Gallagher said he expects to continue facing the same challenges it always has, with increased heating and maintenance costs driving up the price of housing and making more people unable to afford places to live on their own. Though the faces of those coming through Westbrook Housing’s offices may change, he said, Westbrook Housing would maintain its mission to offer help to whomever needs to it.

“The reasons that we’re here haven’t really changed that much,” Gallgher said.

Westbrook Housing’s 40th anniversary celebration, Millbrook Estates, 300 East Bridge St., Saturday, Aug. 22, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Free entertainment by Doc’s Banjo Band and magician Phil Smith. Hot dogs served from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Suggested donations for the Westbrook Food Pantry or the Animal Refuge League’s Pet Pantry.

John Gallagher, executive director of Westbrook Housing, stands inside one of the 15 unfinished condominiums at the old St. Patrick’s School in Portland. The project, which was done by Westbrook Housing’s affiliate Westbrook Development Corp., is an example of the organization’s shift to address the needs of young, first-time homebuyers, and not just the elderly and disabled.
Staff photo by Leslie Bridgers


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